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Miley Cyrus at the VMAs: When to Listen and When to Shut Up

photographer Daniel Arnold

With some luck, I scored a seat at this year's MTV Video Music Awards, held at Brooklyn's Barclays Center, the arena once endorsed and later abandoned by Jay Z. I anticipated that attending would feel like a consummated dream, a chance to momentarily step into the shoes of my childhood VJ heroes. But in the arena, seated directly behind the small stage where *NSYNC would piece itself temporarily back together, I felt weirdly removed from the action. Detachment at live events has already been documented by sports franchises concerned that fans accustomed to replays, commentary and flashy camera angles prefer to watch games from home. With Barclays' cell network overrun, I couldn't load Twitter or make GIFs. I wondered if Kendrick Lamar had communicated with Allison Williams. Did Selena Gomez' body language suggest a real or phony friendship with Taylor Swift? From across the stadium, I couldn't tell. While you watched the thrilling diptych of Miley Cyrus' dancing and Rihanna's disdain, or Lady Gaga's wig snatching followed the Smith families' collective bug-out, I squinted.

It was, however, plain to discern the show's unsubtle "whitewash." The show had no host and there were few acceptance speeches; it felt like Macklemore held the mic longer than anyone else, first explaining the merit of independent rap and then the merit of gay marriage. Trailed by a crew of fedora-wearing adults, white R&B hero Justin Timberlake performed a literal victory lap, zig-zagging across five stages in what felt like a precursor to an eventual Vegas run. Kanye West's Kara Walker-recalling performance, projected onto a photo of a "lynching tree," was tone-deafly introduced by Jared Leto. Most memorably, even seen from a distance, Miley Cyrus waggled her tongue and raised her ass to the audience as part of a baffling medley performed with Robin Thicke, 2 Chainz and Kendrick Lamar. The set was genuinely weird, increasingly strange as it stretched past six minutes—with 2 Chainz joyous in the aisle with a flag team, Lamar's verse deadpan and sanitized and models holding a crop of weird, luxury-mocking piñata art. Cyrus chaotically fondled Thicke and manhandled a black backup dancer, with aggressive indifference to recent criticism that she's treated black women as props. It wasn't surprising to return to Twitter in the night's wee hours and find outrage at the way Cyrus' show devalued black women.

That anger was expected because it was reasonable, but it also seemed that MTV was intentionally stirring up shit. While the medley's participants were all nominated for awards, none were endorsed by the network as winners on Sunday. Instead, those artists were crassly bundled together for viral reach (and successfully so, with ratings up 66% after a dismal showing last year). The Cyrus-led performance was the show's most talked-about, spawning 306,100 tweets per minute—more than the Super Bowl—and countless next-day memes.

At home after the show, I was surprised by how widely Cyrus was criticized by ostensibly liberal people not only for her racism, but for her body, with people calling her butt "nasty" or guessing she hasn't really had enough sex. It felt like they were lumping needless extra criticism on something that was already legitimately offensive. Both Cyrus and MTV were presumably eager to stoke controversy by any means necessary. They benefit from bad press and critical think pieces. But sometimes, propelled by a sense of vigilante justice and the urgency to say something relevant right away, people who have good critical intentions end up coming off noisy and mean, whether they're thoughtful or not. As performers and events become increasingly rewarded for provoking bile, when will we learn to shut up?

Miley Cyrus at the VMAs: When to Listen and When to Shut Up